‘The uncertainty is the worst thing’: the energy bill crisis

With a 200-year history, Band on the Wall in Manchester is one of north-west England’s best-loved music venues. Over the years, it has hosted jazz greats, pivotal early appearances by Buzzcocks, Joy Division and the Fall, and more recently the likes of James Blake and Self Esteem. However, like most of the nation’s venues, it is now reeling from the cost of living crisis as bills go through the roof.

“We’re budgeting all the time, but it’s becoming impossible because with inflation in double figures you don’t know how much anything is going to be in four or 10 weeks’ time,” explains CEO Gavin Sharp. “Say one supplier raises prices by 6% or 8% – that’s not an isolated increase, it’s the same with every single supplier. And our staff costs – our single biggest expenditure – are being impacted because we’ve had to put up the hourly rate so they can pay their bills. It becomes a spiral.”

On an annual turnover of £2m, the venue’s costs have rocketed from £450,000 to £650,000. The Music Venue Trust estimates that for the sector as a whole, which has a gross turnover of £399m, the current rise equates to an additional £90m in costs.

And Band on the Wall’s bills don’t yet factor in the energy crisis. Unlike the pubs and cafes that have already been forced to close after facing astronomical bills, the Manchester venue secured a fixed-rate energy deal before prices started rocketing. That 12-month contract runs out in February. “The uncertainty is the worst thing,” Sharp says of what comes next. “It’s impossible to plan.”

Vibe … Craig Charles on the decks last March. Photograph: Jody Hartley

Despite the government announcing it would help businesses with energy bills, the details are very sketchy, says Sharp. “We haven’t had a chance to absorb it yet and it’s very vague. They have to do something significant otherwise we’re going to see the wholesale collapse of all sorts of businesses.”

It’s the latest crisis for the UK’s venues – following difficulties such as the smoking ban, the financial crash, rocketing rent and rates, changes in alcohol consumption and Covid-19. Band on the Wall dodged the worst of the pandemic: it had already planned to close for a period in 2020 to undergo a substantial enlargement and revamp funded by the Arts Council and National Lottery Heritage Fund. Lloyds Bank and Carlsberg each contributed £150,000 to help retain staff and keep the venue going.

“The timing was ridiculous,” Sharp says. “We were told to lock down on the Friday [20 March 2020], and we had the demolition contractors in on the Monday.” After knocking through into a derelict Victorian fruit and vegetable building at the rear, the historic venue – which first received a music licence in 1806 – reopened in January with an increased capacity of 520, up from 340, a new stage, bigger dancefloor and an interior modelled on a New York jazz club.

Downscale … will the rising cost of living mean punters stay away?
Downscale … will the rising cost of living mean punters stay away? Photograph: Jody Hartley

“Artists say: this is the best venue of its scale in the country now,” says Sharp, who programmes soul, reggae, jazz, South American and African music to “celebrate the migrant heritage of the city”. As a non-profit making charity with community-based ideals, the venue runs a variety of activities ranging from education programmes to free gigs.

The reopening and return to live music has been highly successful, but the tide is turning. The rising cost of everything from drinks to taxis means that many people are cutting back on entertainment just as Band on the Wall’s cost increases are five times what they had expected them to be after the revamp. “We’re staffed up with the expectation of getting 25,000 people through the door in the next six months, but if everything indicates that we’ll get half that then we’re going to have to reshape the business,” says Sharp – potentially leading to redundancies and downscaling of operations.

Many live music professionals who fell through the cracks of government support retrained in other fields: Sharp worries that the current crisis facing the sector might lead to a repeat, and mentions that many of the bands that stopped gigging during Covid never reappeared.

In a worst-case scenario, Band on the Wall might be reduced to weekend trading, but Sharp is trying to be optimistic. “So many people around me are going: ‘This is going to be a disaster,’” he sighs. “But I don’t think the people in the Treasury are stupid. They must know they have to intervene.”